Will the AAdvantage Devaluation Cause American Airlines Stock to Shoot Up? (No.. Are You Nuts?)

You can say a lot of things about American’s changes to their frequent flyer program announced this week. This, however, is not one of them:

An article for The Street is going to look to find an investment angle in most any piece of news, because they have to. (HT: Dave B.)

Nearly everyone should just invest with Jack Bogle. There are a ton of really smart people who spend their entire professional focus trying to beat the market, and most of them get killed most of the time. The median investor, and even the professional investor without the savvy and resources to crunch tremendous data and develop theories that will work out slightly better on average over time just won’t consistently beat the market.

It turns out that’s not the only reason not to read The Street. Another is silly claims like this one.

It begins with a rather odd claim:

The announcement came Tuesday, just days before the start of the heavy Thanksgiving Day travel period, one more indication that American is happy with the reservations cutover and has no worries that Thanksgiving travel will be impacted by it.

The reservations system cutover, moving all of the customer-facing US Airways operation onto American’s platform, went remarkably smoothly. And the process of combining the two airlines was the primary focus for American, and the reason that these cuts to the frequent flyer program waited so long.

But claiming that operational confidence over Thanksgiving travel determined the timing of the announcement is… a stretch.

American wanted to give enough notice that they would be seen as respectful of their members with the changes that were made, and for the most part they accomplished that. I caveat only slightly because some partner earning changes go into effect in just about 6 weeks, because people are already buying 2016 travel and top tier elite systemwide earning based on that travel will change in 2016, and because they’re anticipating a change to the Platinum elite bonus during (albeit towards the end of) the 2016 elite year — benefits that American’s Platinums have already earned.

They likely wouldn’t have announced a devaluation of the frequent flyer program in the midst of an operational meltdown. But we’ve known for a month that the cutover went well, announcing pre- or post-Thanksgiving wasn’t driven by a current estimation of October 17.

Despite strong financial performance, airline stocks and especially American’s, have underperformed recently:

American, Delta and United have lagged due to the strong dollar, overcapacity in some international markets and weak economies in others, and American has had added burdens, while other carriers led by Southwest have benefited from a domestic focus.

Competition is heating up thanks to low fuel prices, that’s pushed down unit revenue. Low cost carriers are growing capacity especially in American’s markets. American is facing increased challenges from Southwest in the Dallas market thanks to the expiration of the Wright Amendment. American’s focus on South America, and especially Brazil and Argentina, are hurting them financially. Europe remains weak.

All that is is certainly true, and far more explanatory than “American’s frequent flyer program hadn’t shifted to revenue-based earning yet” (and won’t for a year).

American has been averse to leverage, paying down debt in addition to funding $6 billion worth of share buybacks. That tells me that they don’t see huge opportunities to invest in growth, and their stock probably should reflect that.

However I wrote back in May that finishing the work of the merger would mean the ability to assign the right-size aircraft to the right routes. The Street piece just notices this. But it won’t happen soon. They have to merge pilot seniority lists first. That’s perhaps the biggest hurdle left in the merger.

In matching Spirit, “AAL is killing mice with hand grenades and, in the process, also competing with itself,” Keay wrote. Next year, Keay expects, American will unveil a version of Delta’s “Basic Economy” fares, which offer limited seat selection and last-in-line boarding.

Additionally, “Watch for AAL to unlock revenue synergies through gauge optimization by putting the right planes in the right markets after the {reservations} cutover,” he said, adding that analyst expectations are low for American and “2016 consensus looks beatable.”

On American’s third quarter earnings call American President Scott Kirby noted that their revenue per available seat mile lagged because they had not just re-upped their co-brand credit card deal. United and Delta had, so their third quarter numbers showed a year-over-year boost.

However American’s current deal runs through 2018 so it would be surprising to see an announced extension in 2016, especially since Citi and Barclaycard will both be bidding aggressively for it. Barclaycard, while smaller, does have an installed cardmember based as the previous issuer of the US Airways co-brand. And Citi could be simply tapped out after overpaying for Costco. It will be an interesting development, but one that’s not on the immediate horizon. So I’m not sure it’s fair to say, as Reed does, “One area where American can add value, he said, is through another credit card deal.”

Ultimately I have t oimagine that Ted Reed – who is a smart guy – did not actually title the article himself. Because try as I might I cannot find any argument in there that suggests the mechanism through which American’s announcement of a shift to revenue-based mileage earning from flights (which represent only a fraction of miles awarded by AAdvantage — two-thirds of miles are sold to third parties) will do anything for the airline’s profitability or share price. It just doesn’t seem to be there.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Southwest has been great for my flights to MIA or FLL from DFW. I can find them now for $100 to $110 RT with a little planning.

  2. By awarding less miles in total for flying, they’re cutting their costs.
    By gutting their award chard, they’re cutting their costs.

    Both actions could very well find a reflection in the share price.

  3. @Lack I completely agree – I don’t understand Gary’s contention that changes to a loyalty program could not possibly impact share prices. If he’s arguing that the changes AA made are immaterial, that’s possible. For example, devaluing miles could make them worse less to consumers and hence the price they can sell them to third parties goes down, and they are giving away fewer miles for actual flying. But since they’re “worth less” it means it costs AA less in redemptions. But are these things 100% equal (and not just this quarter, over the next few years?).
    Anyway maybe these changes won’t affect stock price but the large loyalty programs are absolutely NOT immaterial to the price of airline stocks. Changes to the programs can and will impact consumer demand for miles and AA is in the business of selling award miles to third parties and then redeeming them. Put another way, miles are an outstanding liability and they just changed the exchange rate in their favor (and will do so over and over). That balance sheet liability just got smaller, and how does that not affect business (until the consumers revolt, and the long-run is still unknown).

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